Prepare for College: Read the Bible
By Derek Melleby
Students who desire to transition smoothly from high school to college should read and understand the Bible. You probably expect this kind of advice coming from me. In my work with CPYU’s College Transition Initiative, I have written and spoken often about the need for students to go to college for biblical reasons. As Christians, the Bible is our authoritative, “life-shaping” story that should dictate the decisions and direction of our lives, especially as it pertains to attending institutions of higher education. A working knowledge of the Bible and a daily practice of devotional Bible reading are essential for this major next step in students’ lives. Christian parents and youth workers need to continually instill the value of biblical literacy into youth.
This is not uncommon or surprising advice coming from a confessing Christian who believes the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. What is surprising is that results from a recent study reveal that I am not alone in offering such guidance. In fact, English professors from leading colleges and universities all agree: “Knowledge of the Bible is a deeply important part of a good education.”
The above conclusion was drawn from a study conducted by the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), “a non-partisan, non-profit endeavor to encourage and facilitate the academic study of the Bible in public schools.” The BLP works under the assumption that “the failure to teach about the Bible leaves students in ignorance and cultural illiteracy.” Their belief was remarkably affirmed after asking college professors from leading institutions (i.e. Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan, Virginia, Notre Dame) a series of questions concerning the Bible: How important is Bible literacy to a good education? What advantages do students who are Bible literate have when it comes to approaching English and American literature? What problems have these scholars observed in their students who lack this basic knowledge? What do incoming freshman in college-level English courses need to know about the Bible?
The answers to these questions were astonishing and encouraging. Overwhelmingly, the survey indicated that a lack of basic Bible literacy hampers students’ ability to understand both classics and contemporary work. Harvard Professor Robert Kiely explains, “I can only say that if a student doesn’t know any Bible literature, he or she will simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth … The Bible has continued to be philosophically influential in Western, Eastern, now African cultures, and so to not know it-whether one is a Jew or Christian-seems to me not to understand world culture … English and American literature is simply steeped in biblical legends, morality, biblical figures, biblical metaphors, biblical symbols, and so it would be like not learning a certain kind of grammar or vocabulary and trying to speak the language or read the language.”
Brown Professor George P. Landow put it this way, “Without such knowledge one reads productions of 19th century culture much in the manner of someone who tries to use a dictionary in which one-third of the words have been removed.”
When asked, “What kind of things are easier in your classroom for students who know something about the Bible?” professors responded:
- Being richer, more sophisticated students
- Recognizing literary allusions, references and echoes
- Understanding how characterization in novels and thematic levels in poetry are linked to biblical allusions
- Understanding and recognizing the idea of the Christ figure
- Possessing a solid advantage in understanding Victorian art and literature
- Understanding the parable genre
- Doing literary analysis
- Understanding questions of canonicity and non-biblical literature
- Appreciating the tone of the politics of the 16th and 17th centuries
- Discussing “meaning” and “values” with understanding and insight
This is just a sampling of the informative survey. What is compelling is that most of the professors interviewed were not Christian or Jewish, but were simply stating what they think is obvious: in order to be an educated, responsible citizen in America, one needs to be biblically literate. What’s more, a biblically illiterate culture not only gets students bad grades on college English exams, but could ultimately have a negative effect on society as a whole.
The BLP responded to its study by publishing a textbook entitled The Bible and Its Influence and developing curriculum to be used in public schools. Currently, only 8 percent of public schools in America offer an elective course on the Bible. A recent Gallup survey of high school students found that students know the very basics (Adam and Eve, etc.) but not much else. Two-thirds of teens couldn’t correctly identify, given four options, a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount, many didn’t know what happened on the road to Damascus, and about 10 percent think Moses was one of the Twelve Apostles.
The Bible and Its Influence hopes to remedy this cultural crisis of biblical illiteracy by offering public schools curriculum that is accurate, scholarly and constitutional. The book has been reviewed and endorsed by many leading Christian, Jewish, Muslim and agnostic scholars. It provides a thorough overview of both the Old and the New Testaments. The artwork is beautiful and the layout is user friendly. In addition to covering the major themes of each book of the Bible, The Bible and Its Influence also provides many “sidebar” features including contemporary “cultural connections,” important historical figures, timelines and charts, and other examples illustrating the Bible’s influence on society.
Last year, the curriculum was piloted and well received by schools in California, Oregon and Washington. Schools in Texas, Alabama and Georgia hope to offer the course this year, and about 300 other school districts are considering the course for the near future.
When the cultural landscape seems to be moving in the direction of getting religion out of the public schools, is it even worthwhile to discuss instituting a course solely on the Bible?
Teaching the Bible in a public school setting certainly has its critics. Offering a course on the Bible raises all kinds of legal questions and has made many school boards apprehensive toward even considering it. There are three main criticisms of the BLP and its textbook.
The first criticism comes from people concerned with the First Amendment and issues involving the separation of church and state. Many fear that offering a course on the Bible shows favoritism toward the Jewish and Christian religion and should have no place in the public schools. What makes this project and textbook unique is that it has been scrupulously analyzed by legal experts from the right and the left, and there have been no objections. In a USA Today feature, Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a non-profit institute that promotes constitutional freedoms covered by the First Amendment, remarked, “If you’re considering a Bible elective, look at this textbook. They’ve done a Herculean effort to make it as constitutional as they could.” And Haynes has also written, “At long last, here is an answer for the beleaguered districts that want to offer a Bible course, but don’t want to get sued.”
The second wave of criticism comes from some liberal biblical scholars who argue that The Bible and Its Influence is slanted toward an evangelical, conservative reading of the Bible. They site examples from the textbook that fail to mention disputes concerning the dating and authorship of biblical texts, supposed contradictions in the historical record, and some think that the textbook only paints a positive influence of the Bible in society. A simple glance at the list of contributing scholars and the institutions they represent should put this criticism to rest. While there are conservative evangelicals on the list, the list is diverse representing perspectives from both the left and right. Moreover, Chuck Stetson, founder of the BLP, says the textbook does examine the Bible’s negative impact. As an example, he cites a boxed feature that shows the Bible was used “to justify and even encourage anti-Semitism.”
Ironically, the third area of criticism comes from some conservative evangelicals. They don’t think public school teachers are qualified and that teaching the Bible in public schools could undermine biblical teaching at home and in the church. They also fear that in its desire to be objective and neutral, The Bible and Its Influence shies away from some of the stronger biblical teachings. While the textbook admittedly attempts to be as objective and fair as possible when presenting the biblical story, this textbook should be applauded for its scholarship and accessibility. No textbook will ever be perfect or please everyone, but the very idea that public high school students may come in contact with this material should only excite evangelicals. It is clearly written and often simply lets the biblical text and historical records speak for themselves. As for undermining biblical teaching at home and in the church, two comments need to be made. First, this textbook offers great conversation starters about the Bible. Getting students to engage and interact with the biblical story can only be a good thing. The Word of God can speak for itself and we should be confident that God can and will speak through the text. Second, the depth and scope of this textbook make it an invaluable resource that should be used by parents and churches. There may be some areas in the book that some parents and churches disagree with. That’s fine. If nothing else, students will then also be taught the importance of critical thinking.
Given the increasingly biblical illiterate culture and the BLP’s recent work, what should our response be? Who needs to know about this project and textbook? Here are four suggestions.
First, college bound students need to be aware of the significance of the Bible historically as well as devotionally. Not only do students need to meditate on and better understand the Bible for discipleship, they also need to realize that to be an educated person and responsible citizen requires biblical literacy. Christian students may have an educational advantage here, but we should never assume that because a student attends church he or she is biblically literate. Students need to be honest about how well they know the Bible before heading off to college.
Second, teachers and administrators should take advantage of this opportunity to be salt and light in public school districts. It can be difficult to be outspoken about Christian convictions in a public school setting, to be sure. It is not always an easy context to navigate faithfulness. But the BLP’s scholarly efforts have illustrated the need and provided a valuable resource that teachers and administrators can feel confident about recommending. Christian English teachers have a remarkable opportunity to teach a course on the Bible with a textbook they can trust. Prayerfully consider how you can be used by God in this way.
Third, youth pastors and church leaders should be concerned about the biblical illiteracy of our culture. This is not a problem that is “out there,” only affecting “secular” society. Biblical illiteracy is also affecting the church. What are you doing to raise up a biblically literate generation? Do teenagers in your youth groups have a working knowledge of the biblical text? In what areas is your congregation weak and need to improve? Continually asking these kinds of questions, and responding by providing programs and resources can help to ensure a biblical literate congregation.
Fourth, parents need to be made aware of the textbook because of its easy accessibility and proven popularity among students. Many of the schools that have used this curriculum have commented on how engaged students have been with the material. And, let’s be honest, communicating the biblical story while vying for teenagers’ attention is not easy. This textbook not only puts the biblical story in a language that students can understand, but it also provides suggested activities that are relevant and appealing to teenagers.
In his daily Breakpoint commentary, Chuck Colson has offered helpful advice as well as a good concluding remark, “There is overwhelming evidence of the need for biblical literacy in public education. You need to bring this evidence to the attention of those running your local school boards. You need to help them understand that the goal is not spreading a particular religion but preventing the spread of something far worse: a crippling kind of ignorance.”
Source: The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, http://www.cpyu.org